London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Ali Jannati, Iran’s Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, told reporters that he is a member of social networking website Facebook and that membership is not a crime, Iranian news agencies reported on Friday.
“I am in contact with other Facebook users inside and outside of the country, and these days everyone [online] is talking about Ashura,” Jannati added in reference to the commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn.
All social networking websites are blocked in Iran, including Facebook and Twitter. The ban on Facebook and Twitter intensified even further in the aftermath of the 2009 disputed presidential elections, with Tehran ordering all Internet providers to block the sites. This led Iranians to utilize Virtual Private Network and anti-filtering software to get around the ban.
But the ban has lately been challenged by the highest-ranking officials of the Islamic Republic, including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani. Both Khamenei and Rouhani have English- and Persian-language Twitter accounts.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has been a very active Facebook and Twitter user since taking office, sparking a debate on the double standards involved in officials using social networking sites while ordinary citizens cannot.
General Esmail Ahmadi Moqaddam, Iran’s Chief of Police, told reporters in September: “Unfortunately, some government agencies are using Facebook for external communication. That is just a justification and there is no legal permission to do so.”
Earlier in October, Rouhani engaged with Twitter founder Jack Dorsey through the social network. He wrote: “As I told @camanpour, my efforts geared 2 ensure my ppl’ll comfortably b able 2 access all info globally as is their right.”
Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, Iranian prosecutor-general, said in October: “It is not the right time to remove the ban on Facebook.”
It is still premature to predict whether Rouhani’s government can overcome the hardline faction within the judiciary to remove restriction on popular social networking sites. The government’s pledge in this regard represents a major test for Rouhani’s power.